A team from the Southeastern Conference has won college football’s championship for seven seasons in a row. On Jan. 6, against Florida State University, Auburn University will try to make it eight. That the SEC is the strongest conference in college football is now a settled matter for all but the most feverish Big Ten boosters.
The question of why remains a subject of rabid debate. Pinning down the source of the SEC’s greatness is a chicken-and-egg problem. The SEC wins because its schools have big sports budgets. Its schools have big sports budgets because they win. And round and round we go. The search for a first cause often ends in mythology. It’s a Southern pride thing! Nick Saban sold his soul to the devil!
Here—at the risk of vitriol from all corners and with a debt to Ray Glier’s book, How the SEC Became Goliath—is a rudimentary attempt to answer the question in six charts.
The SEC’s virtuous cycle begins with demand. Its football teams have the most fans in the stadiums:
They also have the most fans watching from home:
These legions of fans are ultimately the source of the money that flows into SEC athletic department coffers from ticket sales, licensing, and—most of all—the sale of media rights. Schools spend it on coaches, engaging in bidding wars to get and keep top talent. The chart below shows average head coach pay. (Strength and conditioning coaches, too, can make hundreds of thousands of dollars at the top SEC schools, according to Glier, but that’s not shown here.)
Schools also spend millions on lavish athletic facilities that make them more attractive to recruits. According to the Delta Cost Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, the SEC spends the most (PDF), at $163,931 per athlete in 2010. The Big 12 comes in second at $131,286. Below is a further way to measure how SEC schools lead the pack in resources. It shows the top 25 U.S. colleges and universities by the amount of money their athletic departments generate, per undergraduate—money that’s then available to be spent on facilities, coaching, equipment, and so forth. Ten of the top 25 are SEC schools:
The most powerful recruiting promise of all is a pipeline to the NFL. And the Southeast is by far the most fertile territory in the United States for finding and grooming NFL players. The chart below shows the top 14 states (plus Washington D.C.) by number of first- and second-round NFL draft picks since 2000, per million residents. (Thanks to Alex Bresler at Aragorn for the player data.) Seven are states with SEC schools whose football teams make a point of signing the best players born in their backyards.
As they scour high schools from South Carolina to Louisiana, SEC coaches value size and strength above all. In title game after title game, SEC teams have out-muscled smaller teams built around quality at “skill positions,” primarily quarterback and receiver. “It is big people beating up little people,” Glier writes in How the SEC Became Goliath. Below are the top five teams in college football by the average weight of players on the roster in 2013. Guess which conference has three of them.